Artificial Limits and Game Balance

It’s not a simple thing, to design a role playing game, especially if you’re introducing a brand new system or game mechanic. Depending on the genre, there can be an intimidating number of aspects that you have to address, such as character generation, skill use, combat, health and healing, magic or psionics, overland horse travel times or starship jump distances, and much much more. And that doesn’t even include background information, artwork, etc.

One of the most difficult decisions game designers face is Game Balance. Do you work to ensure that everything is balanced for the players? Do you lay a more gritty, “unfair world” type of ethos on your world? Is each character balanced in relation to all the other characters? And what about the adventuring side of things; is combat realistically deadly or heroically over-the-top? Do your characters advance in rank/level/skill and ability at the same pace as the difficulties they face?

And what steps can you take to keep everything balanced?  And should you?  Is so-called “balance” healthy for an RPG?

There are two examples of what I’m talking about here, specifically what I call using Artificial Limits. These two role playing games are popular games with otherwise fantastic systems and settings, but each of them, in my opinion, uses a particular way of limiting the character’s abilities in some attempt to keep them balanced… or honestly, it feels like it’s a way just to keep them down. By that I mean it seems like it’s implemented only to give the characters room to grow as they advance in level or skill.

Shadowrun, 5th Edition has limits on the number of “hits” or successes that a character can earn through task resolution; there is separate limits on physical, mental and social tasks. No matter how many dice a character can roll to accomplish a task, she is only allowed to use a number of successes equal to or less than her pre-established limits.

EN Publishing’s N.E.W. science fiction role-playing game has a system in which the player characters can not roll a number of dice that exceed the number of careers they’ve accomplished. That effectively limits all their rolls to five dice (five being the normal number of pre-game careers each character has completed) until they advance.

I don’t understand either of these systems at all. If, for example, in Shadowrun 5, I decide to make a character who is exceptionally good at charming and bluffing people, and I purposefully use build points during generation to ensure that the requisite attributes and skills are as high as I can make them, at the expense of other non-charming skills, why should I be penalized simply because I’m a first level character?

If that limit is going to be in place, it should be in character generation; if you don’t want them to exceed certain levels, then don’t make it possible to exceed those limits during character generation.

Artificial limits are exactly that; artificial. And they feel that way. It seems like a cheap-skate method of avoiding good storytelling. Luckily, with both games you can literally just ignore the whole thing, and the games will play just fine. Besides, ignoring those limits means one less detail for the players and the Gamemasters to have to worry about… and especially with Shadowrun, the fewer the details the better.

Please don’t misunderstand this post as a slam on either of these two wonderful games. I’ve been playing and GM’ing Shadowrun since first edition came out in 1979, and I’ll never stop playing it. N.E.W. on the other hand I’ve not even had a chance to play yet, but it’s tugging at my heart strings, and as I’ve said in an earlier post N.E.W. has the potential to unseat Traveller as the Great Grandaddy of science fiction RPG’s. Love ’em both plenty. I just really don’t like unreasonable, inexplicable (oranges) limits!

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